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Grow faster, get stronger: Grow plants quickly to feed the future

Farmers and plant breeders fight against time. The world population is growing rapidly and needs more and more food, but the amount of arable land is limited. In some areas, warmer temperatures have prolonged the growing season – causing drought and pests in other areas.

"We are facing a major nutritional challenge in the world," said Lee Hickey, a plant geneticist at the University of Queensland, Australia. "If you look at the statistics, we'll have about 10 billion on the planet by 2050, and we'll need 60 to 80 percent more food to feed everyone." It is an even greater challenge in the face of climate change and the diseases affecting our cultures, which are also developing rapidly. "

But plant breeding is a slow process. The development of new crop species – higher yielding, nutritious, drought and disease resistant – can take a decade or more using traditional breeding techniques. This is how plant breeders are working to accelerate the pace.

Dr. Hickey's team has been working on "Speed ​​Breeding", where light and temperature are tightly controlled to accelerate plant growth. This will allow researchers to harvest seeds and grow the next generation of crops earlier.

Her technique was inspired by NASA research on growing food on space stations. They ensure that the crops flower early by emitting blue and red LED lights for 22 hours a day and keeping temperatures between 62 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Last November in a paper in Nature they showed that they could cultivate wheat, barley, chickpeas, and rapeseed for up to six generations in one year, while traditional methods would only produce one or two.

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On Monday in Nature Biotechnology, Dr. Ing. Hickey and his team highlight the potential of speed-breeding and other techniques that can help improve food security. According to the researchers, the combination of speed-breeding with other state-of-the-art technologies such as gene processing is the best way to create a new plant pipeline.

"What we are really talking about here is creating large-scale plant factories," Dr. Hickey.

A new era in plant science has dawned, says Charlie Brummer, director of the Plant Breeding Center at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the work. Breeders and breeders have always tried to minimize the time needed to develop a new crop of crops, but with new technologies such as "fast breeding" we can now do better than before, "he said.

Botanists began 150 years ago with the cultivation of plants under artificial light – carbon arc lamps. Since then, advances in LED technology have vastly improved the precision with which scientists can adjust and adjust light settings for individual plant species.

Researchers have also introduced new genetic techniques to optimize flowering times and make plants more resilient to the rigors of a warming planet. Unlike older crossbreeding and crop modification techniques, scientists can use recent tools such as Crispr to cut out parts of the plant's DNA that may be prone to disease. Hickey and his team are working to insert Crispr machines directly into barley and sorghum seedlings to modify plant genes while accelerating their breeding.

This is easier said than done in some cultures. Potatoes and some other plants such as alfalfa are tetraploids that carry four copies of each chromosome. (The human and most animals are diploid animals with two chromosomes, one from each parent). A breeder may want to delete a gene that lowers crop yield. However, on the other chromosomes of the plant, there may be three more copies of the gene.

This unique pattern of inheritance means that potatoes are generally sterile and must be propagated by harvesting and planting tubers. Speed ​​breeding and genetic processing can accelerate the propagation only conditionally, said Benjamin Stich, plant geneticist at the Heinrich Heine University of Dusseldorf.

Dr. Stich and his team are developing a technique called for genomic prediction to speed up the identification of tubers with desirable features. First, researchers take what they know about how different genes affect growth and yield. Then they enter that data into computer models and extract predictions about which plants will have the best combination of genes and yield in the field.

"We can now predict many features simultaneously with high reliability." Stich said. His team has used the technique to successfully predict the susceptibility of tubers to potato blight, as well as starch content, yield and ripening time.

With cheaper and more powerful technology, opportunities for improving harvests around the world are opening up. Dr. Hickey's team plans to train plant breeders in India, Zimbabwe and Mali over the next few years through collaboration with the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics and Grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"It is important to ensure that this also benefits farmers in developing countries," said Drs. Hickey. Most speed breeds can be done with minimal skill, and in countries that may lack power and other resources, solar panels can be used to power cheap LEDs. Speed-breeding can also be combined with gene editing and genomic prediction .

"Technology alone will not solve our problems," Dr. Hickey. "We will need all the tools in the shed."

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